Monday, May 10, 2010

Fast track demolitions in Spain

As if things weren't bad enough for many homeowners in Spain, comes this story from yesterdays Sunday Telegraph

Owners of homes which are retrospectively judged to have fallen foul of regional planning rules can now be given just one month's notice that council bulldozers are being sent in, as part of a crackdown on excessive development in one of Spain's most popular regions.
Thousands of homes that were bought or built in good faith across the area are at risk since the regional authority began reviewing local councils' planning approvals - and concluded that in many cases, permission to build should never have been granted.

The threat of sending in bulldozers at short notice has horrified the estimated 5,000 Britons with properties in the hillsides of Almanzora, one of the worst affected areas 60 miles north of the coastal city of Almeria in southern Spain.
Hundreds of properties have already been served with demolition orders, but most homeowners had not felt under immediate threat because of Spain's slow-moving legal system. They believe that the fast-track demolition orders will change that.
"The fast-track orders could speed up the legal process and hasten demolitions," said Maura Hillen, who organised a mass rally against them in Malaga. To add insult to injury, after a demolition the victim would have to pay the municipality for the bulldozer.
"We are really worried about express demolition, because officials here have a habit of doing crazy things," she said.
The former IT specialist in the City of London, aged 46, has set up a group of Britons who, like her, have been given demolition orders. They are using skills from their former professional lives and funds raised from car boot sales to pay for their campaign.
They call themselves the "Albox 8", after the small town where they live, whose population has risen from 15,000 to 22,000 over the last decade. Builders and property developers prospered as new villas sprouted during a four-year property boom that began in 2000, and local officials praised the foreigners who brought money to the impoverished region. Almost overnight, on dusty roads where there had once been plodding donkeys, newly rich farmers were driving Mercedes limousines.
Then Spain's overheated property market was rocked by a series of corruption scandals, and the regional government began scrutinising permission granted by local council officials.
Half-built properties are thought to be at greatest risk of the new, prompt demolitions, putting people like John and Liz Brown, originally from Hampshire, into the firing line.
The whitewashed churches and almond groves seen from their villa make up the kind of spectacular view they dreamt of before they took the plunge and sold up in Britain.
But the couple have never moved into a property on which they spent £140,000, after a court order stopped construction before the windows were fitted. Since then they have fought a legal battle to be allowed to live there.
Now there is a real chance that officials will send in a bulldozer in the coming months to flatten the house on which they have spent their life saving, but where they have never lived.
"Spain is a lovely country with friendly people and a wonderful lifestyle but when it comes to law, this is the Third World," Mr Brown said, standing amid rusting cans and scattered breeze blocks where his swimming pool was supposed to be.
"It was always our dream to retire here and we worked hard to do it. But now I wish I had never bought a property. People in Britain who are thinking of coming here should know what they are letting themselves in for."
Other residents of the region were equally perturbed. Expatriates fear that any day an official could knock on their door with a legal order declaring their dream home was built without the requisite permission. Every time a JCB digger drives into the area there is panic.
The dashed dreams are particularly cruel for retired couples like the Browns - another member of the Albox 8 - who are too old to start again.
"We spent all our savings on this villa," said Mrs Brown, 60, a former driving instructor. "We can't go back to Britain because we have burnt our bridges and we haven't got anything left." Her husband has had cancer for the past year. Mr Brown, 72, is a former soldier and veteran of the Malayan campaign, who worked for British Airways before his retirement.
Some residents served with demolition notices have suffered stress-related illnesses and one, Muriel Burns, said she had been suicidal since being served a demolition notice just before Christmas.
Mrs Burns, 70, and her husband John, 82, originally from Batly in West Yorkshire, have pledged to handcuff themselves to the French windows and die together inside their tastefully decorated living room if the bulldozer comes.
The result has been crippling for Britons who in most cases bought in good faith, trusting Spanish property developers, lawyers and local officials to provide the correct paperwork. Most have been horrified to discover their houses may lack the necessary permission.
Juan Espadas, the former housing and town planning minister for the regional government, defended the measure introduced during his tenure. "This express demolition law will only be applied in very illegal cases," he said. "In all cases the owners will have the opportunity to defend themselves."
Since the financial crisis hit, the expatriates' enviable lifestyle has been hit by a falling pound, negative equity, and a shrinking jobs market, on top of demolition fears.
"Half the British you speak to now are leaving or want to leave," Mr Brown said. "The way it feels here, the Spanish dream is over."

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